Hello, and welcome back to another installment of one of my ‘lessons learned’ stories from personal flying experiences over the years. This story illustrates “always have a Plan ‘B’ when Plan ‘A’ fails,” and the usefulness of learning navigation techniques like pilotage and dead reckoning.
Like a previous story about a breakfast flight to northern Arizona, this story has a similar theme, but with quite a different start. This flight experience takes place in May 1999. I had rented and was flying one of my favorite Cessna 172’s (N361ES) from the local flight school at Glendale Municipal Airport (GEU) to Earnest A. Love Field (PRC) in Prescott, Az. As I remember, takeoff was uneventful. However, less than five minutes following takeoff (and about the time I was switching radio frequencies from GEU Tower to Albuquerque Center (ABQ Center) for flight following), my navigational equipment failed. But as the late radio personality Paul Harvey used to say, “now for the rest of the story.”
At the timeframe of my flight, avionics technology had jumped leaps and bounds from strict analog instrumentation to digital. Specifically, this flight school’s aircraft were transitioning to global positioning system (GPS) navigation with a ‘moving map’ feature. Now having been an aviation geek and assistant professor for an aviation college, I prided myself in keeping up with all the latest trends, especially those related to flight navigation. I had read up on the ‘moving map’ capability and was intrigued and excited to see it operate in person.
First, a trip down memory lane (for those old enough to remember). When television had matured enough in technology in the mid-1950’s for Joe and Jane Public to purchase, it was a thrill (so I was told…) to see electronic images on a relatively small black-and-white screen, of real live television. Fast forward to our flight, and I was just as thrilled to try out this new ‘gadget’ called a moving map.
Well, I got about 4.5 minutes of my new experience, when ‘Poof’ it disappeared! After the first initial “What just happened?” moment, reality set in and a little voice (maybe my first flight instructor, Lance) in my head said, “Shawn, they have been flying airplanes since the Wright Brothers, using easy to follow navigational methods called ‘pilotage’ (the art of flying using fixed visual references on the ground by means of sight to guide oneself to a destination, sometimes with the help of a map or nautical charts) and ‘dead reckoning,’ (calculating one’s current position by using a previously determined position), so I just switched mental gears and the flight continued uneventfully.
As the saying goes, “If one does not learn the lessons from the past, it will repeat itself over and over again.” Such is the case with this small incident. To this day, I tell my aviation safety and human factors students that this was the best thing to happen to me in my venture into electronic avionics. To simply switch navigational processes to those like pilotage taught in ground school and basic flight training turned out to be a non-event for me since I was taught “the old fashioned way” of flight navigation.
Unfortunately in this ever increasing reliance-on-technology world that we live in, things are great until a failure occurs. In theory, to lessen the flight crew’s burdens of manually flying the aircraft by conducting repetitive manual inputs, automation was a great invention. However, therein lies the trap: over-reliance on one system and complacency. Two recent high-profile commercial aviation accidents attributed to technology failure of automated avionics during the last 7 years bring home the point – always have a backup plan.
June 1, 2009, Air France flight 447 was flying through the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) over the Atlantic Ocean in a severe thunderstorm, en route to South America. It crashed as the automated flight control system became unstable and overloaded due to task saturation. This accident is now deemed one of the classic technological failure events in aviation. (It must be noted, however, that a post-accident report indicated that the flight crew had not been trained to recognize automation failure that resulted in an aerodynamic stall).
Asiana Airlines Flight 214, on final approach to San Francisco International Airport on July 6, 2013, hit the seawall and crash landed on the airport. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report revealed that the flight crew did not have enough experience in the automated system of the Boeing 777, and when the autopilot disconnected, airspeed and altitude began dropping without anyone on the flight deck recognizing it until it was too late to conduct a missed approach.
The moral of these examples and of this story is to not only have an intimate knowledge of your avionics but be prepared to manually fly the aircraft if necessary. As these examples demonstrate, it’s important to maintain currency in manual flight, including techniques like pilotage. It doesn’t matter if you are flying a Cessna 172 or a Boeing 777, the principles remain the same: always stay ahead of the airplane OR the airplane will take you where you don’t want to go!
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Featured Image: Todd Lappin